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Friday, Feb. 9, 2001


Woman, pour my sake, knit my sweater!

When I was growing up, one of the things that worried me was: What kind of music would I listen to when I was 45? Judging from the tastes of my elders, the answer was enka, the Japanese equivalent of country & western. This was a possibility that didn't bear thinking about, especially if you were convinced that George Michael was God's gift to MTV.

Enka was dorokusai (muddy, or unrefined), dasai (tacky) and decidedly jidai okure (behind the times).

An enka singer always appeared in kimono with an expression that was supposedly fragile and pathetic (female) or determinedly macho (male). It was as if none of these people had ever heard of the word "stereotype," still less the phrase "politically correct." While the rest of Japan marched on to new technologies and midriff T-shirts, enka stubbornly remained in the exact same place.

This is a place where women are almost always kawaiso (poor little things) and men are men in the way they are no longer allowed to be in the real world, which is to say they're dumb, full of testosterone and ready to ditch you before morning. Outside, it's always winter and snow lies in huge, silent drifts. And it's not much better inside because a proper enka endorses inadequate heating.

In an enka song, it's impossible to be cozy or shopping for carpets on the Net. Kanashimi (misery), binbo (poverty), shitsuren (unrequited love) -- these are the pillars that support the house of enka.

Consider the lyrics from the megahit, "Kita no Yado (Northern Inn)." The opening lines describe a woman knitting a sweater for her man, in a stone-cold cheap hotel room. As she knits, she has to blow on her freezing hands. And she does this knowing that he will never wear the sweater, since he's already ended the relationship. The climax comes with these words: Onna gokoro no miren desho. Anata koishii, kita no yado (It must be my woman's heart, unable to give up and let you go. I miss you so, in this northern inn). You listen to a song like this, and you itch to send over a copy to Gloria Steinem.

Another song that brings on the chills is "Tsugaru Kaikyo Fuyugeshiki (Winter Seascapes on the Tsugaru Strait)," one of the all-time enka classics. It's about a woman being ditched (again). Heartbroken, she leaves the city and takes the Seikan Ferry back to her hometown in Aomori. The passengers around her are all silent and full of despair. The icy, choppy waves rock the boat. Depressed, the woman goes up on deck where she calls out to her lover (no doubt whooping it up in some Tokyo bar): Sayonara, anata. Watashi wa kaerimasu (Goodbye my love, I'm going home). To emphasize the mood, she adds: Kogoeso na kamome mitsume naite imashita (I look out at the freezing seagulls and weep).

Predictably, men's enka is not half as sad. True, there are songs about parting from a loved one but mostly, men's enka is about being a man, about what a man's gotta do . . . and other enlightening subjects. Consider the lyrics from "Funauta (Fishing Boat Song)" in which a woman outlines a fisherman's opinions of the kind of things that a man must have: O-sake wa nurume no kan de ii (Sake must be lukewarm). Onna wa mukuchi na hito ga ii (The woman who pours it for me must be quiet and reticent). Akari wa bonyari tomorya ii (And when I'm with her, the light should be subdued).

Well, honestly. It's a good thing she's not ordered to knit a sweater as well. "Funauta," by the way, was sung by the throaty female vocalist Yashiro Aki. She was one of the first to sing male sentiments in a particularly feminine style and won enormous support from both genders.

A personal favorite is "Showa Karesusuki (Withered Grass in the Showa Era)" -- one of the best poverty enka songs of all time. This is a duet, and supposed to kindle feelings of true love in any karaoke situation.

First, the guy sings, Mazushisa ni maketa (Poverty broke me). To which the girl sings back, Iie, seken ni maketa (No, the harsh world broke us). He sings again, Kono machi mo owari da. Isso, kirei ni shino ka (This town is over for us. So whaddaya say, we both just die).

Obviously, the songwriter did not understand that for a man to bring death on his partner is a criminal act which could land him in prison.

What scares me is that the older one gets, the more enka starts to make sense, especially during these winter months when one's thoughts turn to freezing seagulls, freezing hands and knitting needles. George, help me. Get me out of here.

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